In defense of reason

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - October 19, 2019 - 12:00am

Any given week in London there are a multitude of free talks, discussions and lectures open to the public at the many museums, libraries and institutions. I decided to move back a couple of years ago to the place I grew up partly because of this wealth of public thought and discussion, I wanted to properly enjoy life in an open society where people do not fear arrest for a Facebook post and where public discussion is not limited by the state.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my parents’ house off the Edgware Road where we lived for 20 years was safe place for free thought, where dissidents, journalists, and intellectuals would come to share the latest updates from the Philippines under Marcos. The former Ambassador JV Cruz would come and argue with my parents and their friends. I will never forget the visits of the late Senator Pepe Diokno and his amazing daughters who would joke and tease me and my sister and brothers with affection and debate political ideas and actions with just as much open-minded and open-hearted passion.

My dad deeply disliked laziness in us and most of all intellectual laziness. The pursuit of knowledge and sharp, deep and thorough thinking through education in order to figure out how best to free ourselves and others from the shackles of ignorance, oppression and poverty was the unspoken ideal of the house. I didn’t realise it at the time as a rebellious teenager but this was the absolute opposite of anti-intellectualism. So nowadays when faced with these threats I recoil instinctively.

Karl Popper’s “Open Society and Its Enemies” a thick, red paperback that was on a shelf in my parents’ room presided over the family as we played, squabbled, napped and lived out our childhoods. Eventually I took it off the shelf and read for myself the Austrian intellectual’s passionate treatise in defense of freedom and reason. It’s very much a book of its time, published in 1945 and inspired by the rise of Nazism, it became a hugely influential rallying cry for western liberal democracy. “If our civilisation is to survive,” Popper wrote, “we must break with the habit of deference to great men.”

It all sounds a bit dated nowadays. The ideals of freedom and reason that were supposed to protect citizens have been perverted, and the words most crucial to the ideals: “freedom,” “reason,” “rights” the very tools of rationality have become jaded. They are easily co-opted to rationalise the nastiest episodes of political totalitarianism including the Holocaust: so anything can be rationalised. I think it’s partly why people can use the blanket term “fake news” to carry out their own disinformation campaigns. Reason has become blind and used to suit the system or the master plan of the Man in charge.

Memory has become crucial to rescuing reason from its kidnappers. It is a necessary companion to illuminate the parts that the Man doesn’t include in his argument, because that would frustrate his limited aims.

A few days ago, I was fortunate to be able to make it to a talk given by Ambeth Ocampo at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. The title was “Rizal, Maps and the Emergence of Nation” but that makes it sound far less entertaining than the lecture itself. There were many students in the audience, but just as many who were not. Personally, I wanted to get Ocampo’s take on the relationship between maps and human experience and between the hard power of the coloniser and the fluid lives of the colonised.

When Ocampo spoke of his quest to find out just how many island there actually are in the Philippines I remembered William Faulkner’s words: “The past is not dead, it is not even past.” I shan’t recount his speech and rob you of the pleasure of attending one of his lectures if you haven’t already. What emerges is a profound but light-hearted exploration of the way that memory, history, education and identity are interconnected. It was wonderful to see how the audience responded with laughter, gasps of outrage and accounts of their own experiences of the shortcomings of the Philippines education system.

All the things we think we know that we may have come to accept are subject to question. Ocampo’s inquiry into where the old number of 7,107 islands had come from found that it dated back to Spanish colonial times but had never really been examined. Any map of the nation that emerged through the centuries was never truly accurate and was always the result of who was making it, when and how they were making it and why. But the old number and unchallenged “facts” are still being taught to this day. Doubt is fundamental to rescuing reason because it necessitates inquiry: the enemy of the tools and method of reason, but not of reason itself.

That’s not just the case in the Philippines of course and there are very human reasons for it. Ocampo spoke about “necessary fictions” people may hold close. Here in England, tourists rock up to an old building in North Cornwall, now known again as Tintagel Castle where the legendary King Arthur, is said to have been born. The stories are loved and retold for every generation, harking back to an ancient and noble time of chivalry. Visitors pay good money to walk around the site even though there is no evidence at all to back up the stories. In fact, the site is all that remains of a castle built much later than the legend is supposed to have happened, because the aristocrat who built it wanted to take advantage of the legend. So the current site is a fiction on top of another fiction, reinforced by tourists in search of Olde England.

The substance or content of an education is important but the means to question it even more so.

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